“Pickman’s Model“


“Pickman’s Model“
   Short story (5,570 words); probably written in early September 1926. First published in WT(October 1927); rpt. WT(November 1936); first collected in O;corrected text in DH;annotated version in An2 and TD.
   The narrator, Thurber, tells why he ceased association with the painter Richard Upton Pickman of Boston, who has recently disappeared. He had maintained relations with Pickman long after his other acquaintances had dropped him because of the grotesqueness of his paintings, and so on one occasion he was taken to Pickman’s secret cellar studio in the decaying North End of Boston, near the ancient Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. Here were some of Pickman’s most spectacularly demonic paintings; one in particular depicts a “colossal and nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes” nibbling at a man’s head as a child chews a stick of candy. When a strange noise is heard, Pickman maintains it must be rats clambering through the underground tunnels honeycombing the area. Pickman, in another room, fires all six chambers of his revolver—a rather odd way to kill rats. After leaving, Thurber finds that he had inadvertently taken a photograph affixed to the canvas; thinking it a mere shot of scenic background, he is horrified to find that it is a picture of the monster itself— “it was a photograph from life.”
   HPL portrayed the North End setting quite faithfully, right down to many of the street names; but, less than a year after writing the story, he was disappointed to find that much of the area had been razed to make way for new development. HPL’s comment at the time (when he took Donald Wandrei to the scene) is of interest: “the actual alley & house of the tale [had been] utterly demolished; a whole crooked line of buildings having been torn down” (HPL to Lillian D.Clark, [July 17, 1927]; ms., JHL). This suggests that HPL had an actual house in mind for Pickman’s North End studio. The tunnels mentioned in the story are also real: they probably date from the colonial period and may have been used for smuggling.
   The story is noteworthy in that it expresses many of the aesthetic principles on weird fiction that HPL had just outlined in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Thurber notes: “…only the real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness.” This statement is HPL’s ideal of weird literature as well. And when Thurber confesses that “Pickman was in every sense—in conception and in execution—a thorough, painstaking, and almost scientific realist” one thinks of HPL’s allusion to his recent abandonment of the Dunsanian prose-poetic technique for the “prose realism” ( SL3.96) that would be the hallmark of his later work. The colloquial style of the story (as with “In the Vault”) is unconvincing; Thurber, although supposedly a “tough” guy who had been through the world war, expresses implausible horror and shock at Pickman’s paintings: his reactions seem strained and hysterical. Pickman recurs as a minor character in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. “Pickman’s Model,” perhaps because it is relatively conventional, has proved popular with readers. It was anthologized in HPL’s lifetime, in Christine Campbell Thomson’s By Daylight Only (1929) and again in Thomson’s Not at Night Omnibus (1937).
   See Will Murray, “In Pickman’s Footsteps,” CryptNo. 28 (Yuletide 1984): 27–32; James Anderson, “‘Pickman’s Model’: Lovecraft’s Model of Terror,” LS Nos. 22/23 (Fall 1990): 15–21; K.Setiya, “Aesthetics and the Artist in ‘Pickman’s Model’” (one of “Two Notes on Lovecraft”), LSNo. 26 (Spring 1992): 15–16.

An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. .

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